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Open science and the competition-collaboration slider

There’s an excellent story on the front page of the Boston Globe today, by Carolyn Johnson, about scientists who just go ahead and blab about their data before the village elders have given them permission.


The article says:

Scientists who plunge into openness also risk giving a competing lab a leg up.

“Maybe somebody has discovered some interesting gene and doesn’t want to blab to the whole world about why it’s interesting,” said Michael Laub, an assistant professor of biology at MIT. He says his lab is not overly secretive, but does not post “all the gory details of what someone is working on, because I don’t want my grad students necessarily to be scooped by someone else.”

Laub is just saying what everyone knows.1 But the fact that everyone knows it and we’re ok with it is a sign of the problem with the system: The system we want maximizes knowledge and innovation, but the system we have swerves in order to preserve credit for individuals. From the discovery of the shape of DNA to AIDS research, we’ve seen some of the problems with the competitive model of science. But we also routinely see the benefits, as scientists work overtime in order to get credit for a discovery.

And yet, the mix seems wrong. The competitive model made more sense when it was more difficult to share data anyway. The collaborative model is proving itself in unexpected places. It’s clear that a mixed model works — some competitive, some collaborative — but it’s not clear how far we can push the slider toward the collaborative side. My hunch, and my hope, is that it’s way further than we would have thought, especially since experience shows that the satisfaction of being recognized as a continuously generous member of a network can at least equal that of authors of intermittent, officially-sanctioned publications.

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1I’m totally guessing about his, but I suspect that Laub actually talked with Johnson, the reporter, mainly about the virtues of open science, but noted that his group doesn’t give away absolutely all of its data…and it was only the last part of the sentence that made it in. As I say, I’m totally making this up, but the quotation had that sort of ring to it.

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